These are some of the books that I often find myself recommending to people. Usually these are people who have read David Foster Wallace, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, Cloud Atlas, and Moby-Dick (or whatever) and are interested in something a little more offbeat. But these aren’t too offbeat. You’ve likely already read at least one or more of these, too.
1. Log of the SS The Mrs Unguentine by Stanley Crawford
This short novel (novella?) tells the story of a marriage aboard a gigantic barge. Like most of these books, it’s hard to accurately describe. The narrator has a unique voice and the fact that it’s set aboard a ship calls to mind a postmodern Melville and Waterworld. It’s the kind of book that other writers read and think “Damn, I wish I’d written that.”
2. This is Not a Novel by David Markson
Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress got a huge plug from David Foster Wallace, but Markson’s index-card tetraology of Reader’s Block, This is Not a Novel, Vanishing Point, and The Last Novel, are to me, more rereadable. (I even started a twitter account dedicated to them.) Evan Lavender-Smith called them “like porn for English majors.”
3. From Old Notebooks by Evan Lavender-Smith
Speaking of EL-S, his book, From Old Notebooks, takes the form of Markson’s books (although he also traces the form back to Evan S. Connell’s Notes from a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel) and updates it, giving us insight into the modern mind of the writer. If you liked Markson’s books, you’ll love Evan Lavender-Smith’s. I can’t say enough good things about it. Read biblioklept’s review.
4. The Journalist by Harry Mathews
Mathews is best known as the only American OuLiPo member, and all of his work bears some formal mark of constraint, but this novel stands out to me as his best. It’s the story of a journalist trying to make sense of his life and organize his thoughts–and of course, he slowly goes insane. If you liked Wittgenstein’s Mistress and Pale Fire, I am sure that you will like The Journalist.
5. Live Girls by Beth Nugent
This book is seriously, direly under-appreciated. I remember the day the book came out and every year or so since then I go back and read a few pages of it and can’t believe how incredible it is. The characters are strange and quirky and completely original and the story itself is just incredibly heart-rending. By my accounting, Live Girls should be considered one of the best novels published in the 1990s. If you like Steve Erickson or Vollman’s The Royal Family, you’ll probably like this, too, but I wouldn’t limit the appeal of it there.
6. Summer Blonde by Adrian Tomine
Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan is now considered part of the pantheon of not just great graphic novels, but great contemporary novels. I agree and would g0 a step farther to say that fans of Chris Ware need to read Adrian Tomine. Summer Blonde is one of his best, but you can’t go wrong with Shortcomings, or any single edition of his Optic Nerve series. The latest issue of Optic Nerve contains an interesting allegory about art that deserves greater attention outside of comics circles.
7. The Lost Scrapbook by Evan Dara
This is one of the great “big” novels of the 1990s. It’s also probably the least known. Dara, almost certainly a pseudonym, plays with form and voices in a way that calls to mind Gaddis in his prime. The story is almost incidental, but part of it is an ecological thriller.
8. The Last Western by Thomas Klise
This is an obscure novel I learned about from Maria Bustillos on wallace-l. I looked for a cheap copy for years before finally picking one up on ABE for $25. Maria’s appreciation of the book is required reading. I’m certain that a publisher will re-issue it at some point and will make a good profit. The story is about an unlikely hero–a pope from New Mexico.
9. I Know Many Songs But I Cannot Sing by Brian Kiteley
Kiteley’s short novel takes place in Cairo during Ramadan. An American named Ib gets lost and wanders through an almost hallucinatory set of experiences. If you are a fan of Paul Bowles or Amitav Ghosh, you need to read this book. Also recommended is Kiteley’s masterful first novel, Still Life With Insects.
10. The Method Actors by Carl Shuker
Shuker’s novel immediately garnered comparisons to David Foster Wallace and David Mitchell when it was published in New Zealand. The voices and set pieces are dazzling. For me they call to mind the great Henry Green’s books full of characters in medias res, leaving the reader to sort out who is who and what is really going on. Shuker’s other books are also all highly recommended.
11. Super-Cannes by J.G. Ballard
Ballard may be known for Crash, but for me, this book best represents his critique of modern society. The picture he paints of Cannes is a mirror of almost every luxurious suburb and his eye for detail helps create an image that is compelling and abhorrent at the same time.
12. The Story of a Million Years by David Huddle
This one is a little different in that it is a love story, but Huddle deserves to be mentioned alongside Updike or Roth because he is more compassionate and able to craft believable female protagonists. This is not a book I frequently re-read (although it’s short), but one I’m glad I read when I did. I also liked his book La Tour Dreams of the Wolf Girl. My wife, Jordan, gets credit for introducing me to Huddle!